I was telling folk at the triennial Clergy Conference this week that it was my fourth - but I see from the last time I blogged about it that it is my fifth. The weather at The Hayes in Swanwick, as you can see, was splendid although that actually dissuaded me from going out for a walk as I would normally have done: the sun was far too exuberant.
The Conference turned out unexpectedly in a way I'll talk about in a different post. More generally I arrived after a hot journey expecting to be greeted as usual with a smart-aleck remark by the Director of Ordinands, which thankfully never came. I never like this event. The talks and workshops are all very well but separated from my parish by hours of disagreeable driving (you can go by train, but unless you time it just right the nearest station you can get to is Derby, requiring a long taxi ride to take you to The Hayes); and then there's the small talk. At lunch on the first day I found my way to a table with a couple of priests I didn't know (I don't know the great majority of them):
Me: Is it all right if I join you?
Revd Anon: Of course. [Pause as I sit] And which part of Wales do you come from?
Me: Er, none actually.
Revd Anon: Ah, I thought I heard a bit of an accent ...
The theme of the conference was Traces of Grace. The opening worship included 'Amazing Grace' - but not the one you may be familiar with; it was Chris Tomlin's 2006 version, which alters the rhythm and pointlessly adds to the original lyric (or rather the original with the extra late-Victorian verse bolted on the end). What was wrong with the old version? The bishop then gave his keynote address talking about the unexpectedness of God's grace and the need to be open to it. That meant 'coming to the conference in the right frame of mind' and not staying in our chosen 'echo chambers', especially accepting that the liturgy may not be what we would choose to join with ourselves and we should be receptive.
I felt horribly angry and then angry at myself for feeling angry. 'We have this treasure in earthen vessels', went on the bishop, quoting from 2 Corinthians, and I wondered whether anyone's vessel was made of rougher clay than mine. Does anyone else here struggle with such bitterness, rage and resentment, such unwillingness to do what they should be doing? Does anyone in this room think they're anything other than basically all right, which I know I'm not? It was a long, black tunnel.
And then, slowly, it was all right again. The speakers gave me other things to think about and one of the canons of the Cathedral thanked me for something I'd done that she'd been at. A fellow member of SCP who's not having that easy a time at the moment sought me out at dinner the first evening and before long we were among a knot of Anglo-Catholics or Catholic sympathisers, an 'echo-chamber' perhaps but a soul-preserving one which made us all feel less isolated. And the following day the programme went very unexpectedly, which, as I say, I'll talk about on another occasion!